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Computing At Chaos Manor:
January 24, 2011

The User's Column, January 2011
Column 365
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2010 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

This is the January column, which traditionally presents my reviews of the year and the Chaos Manor User's Choice selections along with the annual Orchid and Onion Parade. User's Choice awards are based on my personal experiences. The Orchid and Onions are my choices but many of the nominations come from readers.

I am late, as usual, but I have never claimed to do breaking news. By the end of this, you'll understand why I'm asking for your indulgence regarding traditions.

2011 CES

I went to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this year. I hadn't been to CES in a long time. I am, I think, the only person other than COMDEX founder and CEO Sheldon Adelson to have been to every COMDEX (at least every Fall Comdex). COMDEX was the major trade show of a rapidly growing industry, with product and technology announcements, and considered important by everyone in the industry or who wanted to get into it. Eventually a combination of the Internet and increasing show costs ate COMDEX, but it had a good run.

After COMDEX finally folded, CES became the principal computer industry show in the US, but I never thought of it as a substitute for COMDEX. It's a big show, and tends to be frantic, but it's not a technology show. The emphasis is on consumer products, and a large number of the advanced new products you see at CES don't actually exist yet, and some never do come into being. (Not that there wasn't plenty of vaporware at COMDEX!) There was plenty of hype at COMDEX, but there were experienced press people looking past it, so most companies brought technical staff as well as demonstrators.

The CES exhibition staff tends to be mostly sales and there's little visible effort to connect with the technology press, although I'm assured it's happening. The show is also enormous, very crowded, and many of the exhibitions have little relationship to computer technology. Getting through the show is exhausting. It's pretty near impossible for any single person even to walk past every exhibit, much less stop and look at them. You're guaranteed to be exhausted at the end of the day. Last time I went I decided it wasn't worth the effort.

On the other hand, I haven't been to a good computer show in years. I needed to get some feel for what is going on. There have been enormous advances in computer hardware - Moore's Law is truly exponential, and we're well up on the exponential curve - so the potential for extraordinary things is out there when the software catches up to anything like the hardware capability. I thought that might be reflected in new products, not from the obvious places that we hear from all the time, but some genius quietly working on something revolutionary. I didn't really expect that, but hope springs eternal: After all, we did make some remarkable discoveries at COMDEX, particularly in the early days. Anyway that was my thinking when I decided to drive up to CES. I hadn't driven to Las Vegas in years.

Going to Las Vegas

When we first moved to California from Seattle I was headed for Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino. General Bennie Schriever had put the headquarters of Ballistic Systems Division as far from the Pentagon as possible: to get to San Bernardino from Washington you had to fly to Los Angeles, then go back east a hundred miles to a place with few accommodations. I had a new job with Aerospace Corporation as the Editor of a new Air Force study of ballistic missile technology, and I didn't know much about the state. We drove down from Seattle with Alex in the back seat accompanied by Rascal, a dog of no discernable breed.

We stayed a couple of days with Poul Anderson in Orinda, then took old Highway 99 south, cut across from Bakersfield to the town of Mojave, and went across the desert north of Edwards Air Force Base on Highway 58 to Barstow. In those days 58 was a two-lane trucker highway. From Barstow old Highway 66 led south over the pass to San Bernardino. It was a long way from San Bernardino to Los Angeles. As a result, after we moved to Studio City in Los Angeles, I got used to going to Las Vegas by going north to Mojave and across the desert on 58.

This trip, we decided that it would be unwise for me to drive alone to Las Vegas in the stormy weather we had during the first part of January, so we arranged that Eric Pobirs would drive up with me, if need be driving my car, but mostly for company. He pointed out that over the years they had extended the Foothill Freeway east and built a cutoff not far from Claremont up into pass, and thus it was much quicker to get to Las Vegas that way, so we didn't go through Mojave, and I didn't get to wave to the only Flying Saucer Landing Spot I know about in detail.

My Blue Book UFO Story

Well, purported Flying Saucer Landing Spot, anyway. When I was at Aerospace in San Bernardino, one of the USAF chaps who worked with me was a junior lieutenant - indeed, the junior lieutenant on the base. Being junior lieutenant made him "George" - that is, the chap who got all the assignments no one else wanted, but which still had to be done. One of the George Jobs was Project Blue Book. Blue Book was the US Air Force program to investigate the threat of Unidentified Flying Objects to the United States. (It eventually concluded that UFO's were not a threat to the national security.)

Every region was required to have a Blue Book officer and to investigate UFO sighting claims. Norton AFB got a report of a UFO landing on Highway 58 sometime in the early 1960's. One would think that this would put it in the jurisdiction of Edwards AFB or George AFB in Victorville, but for some bureaucratic reason Norton was told to investigate it. Of course it went to the junior lieutenant, and of course it was none of my business, but I managed to get myself involved because I was interested. A travelling salesman had parked in a wide spot off the highway a bit north of Edwards and west of Boron. It was 2 AM or so, and he wanted to sleep. Shortly after he parked a flying saucer landed several hundred yards from him. The car would not start. This was well before cell phones, but one presumes they wouldn't have worked either. His mechanical watch said 0315.

The saucer extended three legs and landed. A boarding ladder extended to the desert floor and several - he thought five but he wasn't entirely sure - small humanoid creatures came down it and wandered around through the desert scrub under the ship. After a while they got back aboard the ship. It took off, noiselessly.

The salesman was bound for San Bernardino and decided to report this to the Air Force, which is why Norton took the report even though it's nowhere near the landing site. Interviews with the salesman revealed that he had no evidence for this story. Nothing had happened to him: he watched for about half an hour. He was afraid of drawing attention to himself and never left his car. The ship took off, and shortly after that he could start his car. It showed no sign of any problem. He had no camera and the ship was out of sight before he thought to look at his watch at 0410. There had been no other traffic, which was not unusual for that highway at that time.

Investigation of the site by an Edwards AFB detail led by a tech sergeant showed three slight depressions in a triangle that corresponded to where he reported seeing the landing gear of the saucer, but there was nothing special about the marks. They could easily have been made by a human with some kind of device such as three 30 foot lengths of rope and a metal plate the size of a garbage can lid. There were no footprints, but the desert floor was hard and dusty and the investigation team didn't leave any footprints either. The "landing gear marks" had almost but not quite been obliterated by the blowing dust - Mojave is a very windy area - but they were discernible. I've seen the photographs.

If the travelling salesman had told us he saw drug smugglers and a helicopter we'd probably have believed him. There would have been no reason to doubt him. He had no reason to make up a flying saucer story, and did not want any publicity or even to have his name recorded. There wasn't any reason for him to make it up, but there also wasn't any reason to believe it wasn't a hallucination, except that he didn't have any record of other hallucinations. I found out later that the vast majority of unresolved Blue Book incident reports were like that: reliable people giving the kind of evidence that would have been accepted in criminal cases in court, but with nothing to corroborate the story. Eye witness, but no physical evidence...

On to Las Vegas

Anyway, in my previous trips to Las Vegas I would try to remember just which odd wide spot out towards Boron was the place where the salesman pulled off the road and saw his Flying Saucer, but this time I'd have to forego the pleasure. We drove east on the Foothill Freeway until we reached the Interstate 15 cutoff, and headed up the pass, where we encountered light snow and lousy visibility for about ten miles. I slowed to about forty which seemed to be the prevailing speed. After a dozen miles the weather cleared, and we drove on to Las Vegas without incident.

CES opens on a Thursday, but there are pre-opening events. Eric had to come up early because Alex does the connectivity for several CES invitational press shows, and Eric was needed to help set those up, so we got there Monday night. Come Tuesday morning I drove him over to Caesar's Palace where Alex and his crew were setting up Pepcom, had breakfast in the coffee shop and noted that this isn't the old Las Vegas where everything was cheap. Coffee was a minimum of five dollars.

There was to be an official press reception/show on Tuesday afternoon in the Venetian Hotel. There was also a Press Room and Press Registration in the Venetian, so I drove over there to register as well as to investigate the parking situation. That was easy enough. There is always free parking for the casinos even when they are charging thirty dollars a day for show parking. Once inside the Venetian I was surprised by the number of press people already in Las Vegas. In COMDEX days not many people came early, and I knew most of them. We'd use the time before the show to compare notes and swap tips on what might be worth seeing. This wasn't that crowd. There were a lot of them, I didn't know any of them, and they didn't really look like press.

The official press reception was to be held in a large ballroom not far from the Press Room. It would open at 4 PM. After I gave up on finding anyone I knew in the press room I spent the morning wandering about the Las Vegas, went back to my hotel to change clothes and came back with the notion of getting to the reception on time.

When Everyone is Press...

The Press Reception line at 3:45
The Press Reception line at 3:45
The line, half an hour later
The line, half an hour later

That was my first indication that this would be a quite different show coverage experience. The line outside the press reception ballroom was enormous. It stretched from the entry door as far down the hall as I could see. I got to it in time to discover that many others were coming. The line was growing fast. There was nothing for it but to get in line and wait.

Eventually the line began to move. Slowly. Half an hour later, by the time I reached the entrance door, enough others had joined the line that it went down to the end of the hall where I had joined, doubled back, and extended in the other direction about as far. And still people with press badges were coming.

Eventually I got into the press reception, where there was the usual endless supply of shrimp and other seafood hors d'œuvre, as well as free beer and wine. The room was jammed, and I knew that far more were in line outside. This was going to be an interesting reception. It was impossible to talk to any of the exhibitors without rudely elbowing my way in front of someone. I recognized a few people from major publications - there had been a Consumer Reports crew in the line just behind me, and further back some Business Week reporters - but for the most part these were not people I knew.

John C. Dvorak and Richard Doherty
John C. Dvorak and Richard Doherty
Me, with Sabrina, Caroline, and Richard Doherty.
Me, with Sabrina, Caroline, and Richard Doherty.
A typical press reception scene.
A typical press reception scene.

I was a bit at sea, and pretty well cut off from the exhibits by an eager crowd of young people with press badges. After wandering a bit I found Richard Doherty from Envisioneering sitting at one of the few tables provided. I have seen Richard at shows since the early days of MacWorld and he often comes to WinHEC and the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference. A few minutes later John Dvorak came around. We all agreed, this was the largest press turnout we'd ever seen at a show. John said he'd find out more about this. I was already getting tired, so I was glad to let him do that.

I managed to capture John C. Dvorak and Richard Doherty at the press reception party before the room completely filled up. Then I got a passing press badge chap to take a picture of me with Sabrina, Caroline, and Richard Doherty, using my camera. He took several. Alas, that is the best of the lot. As you can see from the bottom picture at right, the typical scene at the press reception is a crowded one. There are exhibitors with booths back there somewhere but you have to push your way in to see anything.

I managed to get through the press reception, but I didn't learn much. It just wasn't possible to talk to the exhibitors, most of whom appeared to be a bit whelmed by all the attention they were getting. Eventually I gave up and went to dinner.

Prospects for covering the show didn't look good. Of course it was all my own fault: I hadn't bothered doing the leg work to make appointments. In the BYTE days the editorial staff did that for me, and I never developed the habit. I'd have to make do. Fortunately I had invitations to Pepcom and ShowStoppers, both invitation only press receptions where a lot of the best of the show stuff is exhibited; surely those wouldn't be so crowded. I have always found these private receptions - we used to call them peep shows - to be the best place to find things worth writing about, and usually the exhibition staff at the closed receptions were their best people. Things didn't look good for me on the show floor, but the peep shows ought to be good.

On the outside: the Intel press conference was closed
On the outside: the Intel press conference was closed
How to get attention at CES: Have a video crew.
How to get attention at CES: Have a video crew.

I also had an invitation to the Intel press briefing in the Venetian at 10:00 AM Wednesday morning. I made sure to get up early enough be on time. Wednesday morning I got to the Venetian Press Room before 9:30 for coffee. There was coffee, but the donuts were all gone. At 0920. Then worse news. The Intel press briefing room had filled up at 9:15. It held 600 people, but there were more than 1,000 with press badges already in line at 0900. The fire marshals closed the doors when the room filled up. Everyone else went back to the Press Room.

It turns out that the CES Press Relations crew issued press credentials to over 5,000 press, analysts, and bloggers. Anyone with a blog could get a press badge. Some were big outfits, some like mine were medium sized, and a few were fairly tiny. No one got any special invitations. We were pretty well all on our own, which meant that at most general events there weren't going to be any question and answer sessions. There wasn't going to be any hands on experience. That wasn't the purpose of this show. The purpose of this show is to get a few frames of video on national TV. It's a product sales show.

Do note that there's nothing wrong with that. It's just not my cup of tea. But many of the products shown - but not examined - aren't real. They are demonstrated, sometimes with videos. They get their moment on the newscasts; but the only story is the one the sales representatives wanted to tell. Alas, CES is not a place where people like me can get hold of something and pound on it to find out if it really works, and I hadn't made advance appointments with people I trust to tell me what's going on. That's my fault, but it does mean that this isn't the kind of show report I used to do from COMDEX days, and this isn't much of a show report. For those you can go to the web.

I did form a few conclusions.

General Conclusions

I came away from CES with two general conclusions, one of more interest to me than to you.

The first conclusion is that when everyone is Press, no one is Press.

The show staff understands that quite well. The theory is that five thousand bloggers will create a web-based buzz that's superior to what they would get if they confined their press badges to a few hundred technical press and another hundred media people. The bloggers aren't critical. They're looking for something to blog about, and that creates the buzz, and that's what the show PR people want. If you want a story, go out and dig for it.

This may be a good thing. It means everyone has to hustle, and if we don't hustle we don't get a story. I am sure there were some good stories coming out of CES, many got by old fashioned legwork hustling. Of course that's not the kind of story I write. I do considered and informed opinion and interpretation, based on experience. That kind of story was almost impossible to get, because all the exhibition staff time was taken up with the myriads of credentialed press, many at the show for the first time in their lives.

I did note that everything is getting better. Almost all the stuff on display looks better and seems to work better. Appliances - and computers and cameras are fast becoming appliances - are faster, smaller, and use less power. Everything is neater and sweeter. Some of it is absurd in concept, but it's still good stuff in that it does what it says it will. Things we used to consider marvels are now routine, and it all just works. That's true for cameras, TV, monitors, memory, disk drives, cell phones, pocket computers, tablets, laptops, and even things as out of fashion as netbooks. It all just works. It's all Good Enough. Which leads me to the second conclusion:

When everything is good enough, it takes work to discover what's better, and better is often a matter of whim and preference anyway.

The End of the Review

BYTE used to do massive reviews. Compare twenty printers. Pick the editor's choice (we used that phrase long before anyone else did) or, in my case, the User's Choice award. I always did say that my User's Choice awards were personal: this was something that I could use and recommend. It wasn't based on a big performance chart the way most of the Big Product Review choices were. As time goes on, I think that will become even more common. There just isn't any "objective" way to pick out "the best" from a field of good enough. That doesn't mean there aren't differences. A BMW is not a Ford Crown Vic, and neither is a Mini Cooper. Apple products are elegant as well as pricey. Dell computers are pretty well Good Enough for almost anything you'll do. Windows 7 has many of the features that used to be exclusive to Apple, and works pretty well. It all depends on your druthers now. Some are happy to pay for elegance. Some don't choose to pay for it. So it goes.

The hardware is enormously better than the software, and there is certainly room for someone to make use of all that hardware power to come up with something that really stands out: but that didn't happen at this year's Computer Electronics Show.

The Tablet Scene

A number of you have written asking me to review the tablets and phones from CES. There were certainly a lot of them, which ones are best? And alas, I can't do that. We're now down to preferences. There were a score of Good Enough tablets (unless like me you insist on a tablet with a stylus) although not all of them are shipping. They are all trying to compete with the Apple iPad, and they do so in various ways. Price is one obvious way to compete, and I'm the wrong guy to comment on that: I like the iPad enough that I'm willing to pay for the elegance, but I have no strong rational defense of this. Meanwhile there are plenty of new Good Enough tablets out there if you'll settle for an extended iPad, but what I really want requires stylus input and full computer features. Of the tablets I saw the Lenovo comes closest to what I want in features, but it's heavy, the battery life is limited, and I don't care for the form factor.

For descriptions and pictures of a number of tablets, see this link. Massive reviews of this sort are best done by publications with more organization and staff than I have available just now. We used to do this sort of thing very well at BYTE, but one reason I was able to write so definitively is that other editors spent hours helping to select what I'd look at.

I have heard the same rumors of the iPad 2 that everyone else hears, but so far as I know there are no confirmed leaks from Apple. Apple is very good at keeping its secrets - one wonders just how accidental was the leak of the iPhone prototype last year. Given the recent announcements concerning Steve Jobs' health, reading Apple tea leaves is even more difficult.

For the moment I continue with my iPad 1 while waiting developments. I remain on record in the belief that a good TabletPC with OneNote is the best research tool I have ever had. There is a OneNote App for the iPad now, and it works. Of course the iPad has no camera and no way to add an easily carried text scanning wand, so it's not the same, but it is useful. If you have an iPad, try it by all means.

Tablet developments will continue. Microsoft has some very canny Tablet enthusiasts (although apparently no one as enthusiastic as Bill Gates) and some very smart programmers; I would not rule out a dramatic development coming out of Redmond. The mills of Microsoft grind slowly, but they often grind exceeding fine.

What I really want is a lighter edition of my old HP Compaq t1100 Tablet PC, with longer battery life and Windows 7. Peter Glaskowsky tells me that the HP Slate 500 comes close and I should try that. Alas, I wasn't able to get my hands on one at CES.

Something will come. Perhaps from Apple? If a stylus-using tablet were available in a MacBook Air configuration I'd likely pay what it takes to get it, and convert most of my operations to it, building it into a system of docking stations, backup networks, and external monitors and keyboards so I could use it in the office, the Monk's Cell, and at the breakfast table. I fully expect to see something like that in future. I find I don't like to type at the breakfast table, but I often make notes with a pen. A pad of paper is more convenient now than any tablet I have at present, but I don't expect that situation will last more than a year. I don't intend to give up on The Quest for a Tablet, but I'm resigned to that taking longer than I thought it would.

The 3D Scene

I saw nothing in 3D that impressed me. That may be because 3D glasses tend to give me a headache, whether in a theater or a living room. I have never had a 3D experience that I thought worth the effort, and while I enjoyed some of the effects in some of the 3D movies I have seen, I would just as soon see them in 2D. I wish the best of luck to those who like 3D, but this is not an area in which I claim or want expertise.

The Wi-Fi Crunch

The two major private press receptions I went to were Pepcom on Wednesday night at Caesar's, and ShowStoppers Thursday at the Wynn. Both were crowded, but nothing like the show floor or the open press reception. I knew many of the press attendees as well as the exhibitor staff. These are important shows, not only for the exhibits, but as places for old friends in the industry to get together. My son Alex was in charge of providing Internet connectivity for both shows.

An hour into Pepcom I saw Alex rushing about among the show booths, too busy to talk. There were clearly some connectivity problems.

There has always been a problem of wireless connection in big show rooms. Indeed the problem is getting down to the level of apartment buildings, when too many people set up their local Wi-Fi nets and they interfere with each other. Microsoft routinely disables Wi-Fi during keynote presentations at WinHEC and the Professional Developers Conferences, but for the most part we have all muddled through. It came to a head at Pepcom. All of the attendees carry cell phones, and most of those cell phones try to connect to Wi-Fi. In addition, there were a lot of iPads and iPad-like devices in the room. And there were at Pepcom a couple of demonstrations of small boxes that would turn your 3G cell phone into a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot and thus allow you to connect your iPad to your cell phone; and of course each of those created yet another Wi-Fi net.

When everyone can get Wi-Fi no one can get Wi-Fi.

There are remedies to this situation. Frequency hoppers, more channels, more bands, multiple bands - but those are not far beyond the idea stage. And in addition to the surprisingly large sales of iPad, there is an expansion of the number of phones that can create local Wi-Fi hot spots.

In March 2010 PC Mag announced:

Turn a Smart Phone into a Wi-Fi Hot Spot

TapRoot Systems says its WalkingHotSpot software will let you use a 3G, Wi-Fi-enabled Windows Mobile or Symbian Series 60 handset as a Wi-Fi hot spot.

By Yardena Arar, PCWorld    Mar 26, 2008 5:00 am

Got a 3G smartphone with Wi-Fi? Then you might be soon be able to use it as a Wi-Fi hotspot for connecting your notebook or any other Wi-Fi enabled device to the Internet. North Carolina-based TapRoot Systems today announced its WalkingHotSpot software, designed to effectively turn a Wi-Fi- and mobile broadband-enabled handset into a Wi-Fi router. At launch, WalkingHotSpot will be available only for Windows Mobile or Symbian Series 60 smartphones, TapRoot CEO Bob Bicksler said.

Over the year there were many other announcements of new Wi-Fi hot-spot products. Peter Glaskowsky notes that "one of these is the new Verizon iPhone, and rumors have it that when Verizon enables the feature, so will AT&T. When that happens, I may be finally able to shut off the $60/month AT&T service on my Novatel MiFi."

Many Wi-Fi absorbing products were demonstrated at Pepcom, the first of the big invitational press receptions. This created a problem.

There was a partial Pepcom crash - Alex managed to get connections for just about all of the applications in which Wi-Fi connectivity was vital, but he had to run around frantically and did it by sheer hard work. The message was clear: highly connected events were in danger of losing real time connectivity just as they needed it.

Also on Wednesday, at nVidia's press conference Jen-Hsun Huang, Co-founder, President and Chief Executive Officer, couldn't conduct his demo because there were so many Wi-Fi phones turned on that no one could get any Wi-Fi connectivity. Alas the "press" audience was the usual for CES 2011, namely the young bloggers willing to get there early enough to get into the room, and they wouldn't turn off their local Wi-Fi connections or even their local Wi-Fi hot spots. Some were too eager to do live blogging. The result was that the demonstrations couldn't be made, and Jen-Hsun Huang apparently informed the press audience that "You guys suck."

One result was that Thursday morning Steve Leon, one of the founders of ShowStoppers, sent this email to all the invited attendees:

Wi-Fi needs your help at ShowStoppers tonight -- and in the future.


We have all heard of or experienced Wi-Fi challenges at high-profile events.

Please help our sponsors demonstrate their products. We ask you to turn off your phone before you enter ShowStoppers tonight. If you can't do that, please turn off Wi-Fi access on your smartphone and other mobile devices, including all mobile hotspot devices and anything else that acts as a mobile access point.

This is an increasing industry-wide problem common to press conferences, meetings and other high-profile events that rely on Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi was designed for homes and other small spaces with more modest Internet demands. Wi-Fi was never intended for large halls and thousands of people packing an arsenal of laptops, smartphones, tablets and hotspots. Perhaps the entrepreneurs, innovators and journalists attending ShowStoppers tonight can improve this? Got an idea? Send it to me by email.

Thanks. We hope to provide the best-possible product introductions, demos and sneak previews for you tonight -- and at future ShowStoppers events in Barcelona, Orlando, Berlin and elsewhere.

See you at ShowStoppers

Technology advances will cure this problem eventually, but for now, it's quite real, and Steve's requests are very much in order. Apparently they worked: I didn't notice the problems at ShowStoppers.

Kindle or iPad?

A large number of eBook readers were introduced at CES. Given the nature of the show I wasn't able to try many of them. They boil down to "Kindle-like" and "iPad like"; that is, dedicated eBook readers, vs. more general purpose tablets that can run eBook reading applications.

One thing is clear from all this: the industry is predicting exponential growth in eBooks. That's hardly news, of course. Amazon has been reporting eBook sales exceeding sales of hard-bound books for months now. Whatever happens to printed book sales, it's pretty clear there's a great future for eBooks. Couple that with the growing tendency of authors to self-publish both legacy and primary works in eBook format, and the explosion of eBook format textbooks, and it's pretty clear that for most of us there's an eBook reader in your future; which brings up the question, Kindle or iPad?

When small computers first came out, one main rival was the dedicated word processor. About the time I began writing on my S-100 bus CP/M machine (64 kilobytes of RAM!), a number of authors were leasing dedicated word processors. One of them was Barry Longyear, who wrote on a Wang. We had a public debate on which was better. My advice was to go with the general purpose machines, because they would be more useful in the long run.

I take the same view now, but I also note that the decision isn't critical. Kindle and Kindle-like readers are cheap and getting cheaper. The price of a genuine iPad is still relatively high, but that will change. I suspect that most 0f my readers will have both Kindle and iPad (although perhaps not those brand names) within two years. Many have both now.

The advantages of the iPad are the brightly illuminated full-motion display, color, and the hundreds of thousands of applications available. You can watch movies or read books, or, even better, read books with embedded video lectures and cut scenes on the iPad. You can watch a PowerPoint presentation while listening to the lecture, and you can do it with a gadget you can carry in a small case or a large pocket. This alone means that iPad (and similar devices) will have a major impact on education - witness the frantic race to develop and sell distance learning courses in subjects from ancient history to advanced accounting. You can use the iPad in a darkened room, such as a bedroom with a sleeping spouse, or a darkened airplane on a sleepless overnight trip.

On the other hand, you can't use the iPad on the beach. It's pretty well unreadable outside, even under an umbrella. The battery life is limited. It can be distracting: there's always the temptation to look at email, or check the progress of a We Rule kingdom, or play some silly game.

The Kindle is readable wherever there is light including out at the beach. You can get a tiny clip-on LED screen lighter for reading in the dark, and the battery life is excellent. It's easier to read than a printed book once you get used to it. It takes getting used to, but that doesn't take long - and it can be carried in a much smaller pocket than the iPad.

My solution to the problem has been simple. I have both. Or had both. Roberta has taken to the Kindle, so I'm temporarily confined to the iPad, but that's not permanent. I'm buying her a Kindle for herself.

As to the future, I suspect that hardware advances will make the two kinds of reader progressively similar until they are indistinguishable, but realistically that's going to take a while. My inclination tends to the general purpose system, but don't let that stop you from getting a Kindle. Whichever reader you get, you're likely to love it.

My New iPad: A User's Guide

The iPad has sold astonishingly well, far beyond predictions made when it first came out. The television ad campaign was well designed and was certainly one reason for the product's success. One of the best scenes in the advertising campaign was a view of some fascinating applications as a voice assured you "You already know how to use it."

That was mostly true, but perhaps not for all people. For those who don't already know how to use it, there is My New iPad by Wallace Wang. I doubt that this book will tell a regular reader much not already known or easily found with a bit of experimentation; it's very much a beginning user's guide. It's quite specific, and those who need a guide like this will appreciate it; but it isn't for the experienced or indeed the excessively curious. Think of it as a handbook for Aunt Minnie or a young nerd's grandmother.

Each chapter tells how to do something specific, but first opens with a general observation on what it is about to teach you. Here's the lead to the chapter "Transferring Ebooks and Audobooks to your iPad". "For those who love to read, an iPad can become an indispensible device since you can cram thousands of different books into an iPad. By holding an entire library in you iPad, you'll never run out of reading material anywhere you go.

"In this chapter, you'll learn how to transfer ebooks and audiobooks that are on your computer to your iPad."

That should give you some idea of the readers this book was intended for.

Intel Sandy Bridge

Intel announced their new processor at an Intel press conference. The new processor and support system has higher performance and uses less power. It incorporates various security features designed to facilitate digital rights protection for streaming movies and other digital media. It also incorporates the GPU directly onto the processor die.

Equally importantly, it shares the Level 3 cache through a ring system in the CPU. This is a new architecture breakthrough in desktop PC's. Intel has long sought to eliminate the buss, and this goes a long way in that direction. The architecture allows adding an arbitrary number of CPU's to a single chip.

Note that Sandy Bridge greatly improves the on-board graphics capabilities. Initial buzz with the press corps was that the Sandy Bridge HD graphics will be faster than half the graphics cards out there. High end gamers and those chiefly concerned with graphics will continue to use systems with separate graphics cards, but for a great number of users the new CPU will be Good Enough. I expect Intel will eat a fair amount of nVidia's lunch with this.

Eric Pobirs, who follows graphics hardware pretty closely, says

. . . nobody would call the Sandy Bridge GPU portion 'faster than half the cards out there.' Not even close. Keep in mind that the gap between Intel's and competing integrated graphics from AMD and Nvidia was huge. This was a big limiting factor for software developers as the Intel graphics represented a huge portion of the market and in many case systems that had no means for upgrading.

The Sandy Bridge graphics close that gap a fair bit but is still readily outperformed by the IGA competition and left far behind by discrete GPUs. That said, a really major feature in the Sandy Bridge IGA that is a big win for anybody who manipulates video but doesn't care about games is the transcode engine built into the chip. This greatly reduces the time needed to convert a video file from one format to another. A very big win if you have a 1080p video camera but need to create standard definition DVDs that will work everywhere.

From all indications, Sandy Bridge internal graphics are going to be good enough for a great number of applications including a lot of games.

I'll be building a Sandy Bridge system. I've already collected the Antec case and power supply, and four gigabytes of Kingston memory. I'll know more about this when I have a system to play with, but I'm intrigued.

There has been some discussion among my tech advisors on the need for more than 4 GB of memory; I'll settle that one by getting another 8 GB of Kingston DDR3 and trying the system in both configurations. Meanwhile, Eric Pobirs says

Intel has said there will be Sandy Bridge chips for LGA1366 socket [Socket B, which is used by the i7 chip]. These will be the yet to be announced six and eight core models that can make use of the socket's greater performance capacity. Right now, anyone looking to build a Sandy Bridge box need not be concerned but those who went high end on the Core i7 options will have an upgrade path.

All well and good but by the time this really happens I'd bet the newer LGA1366 motherboards will have enough new features and upgrades as to make putting a brand new processor in a years old motherboard questionable.

I'd say 4 GB makes a good entry level for the coming year. The average user, even giving up a chunk to integrated graphics, won't often be short of memory. Going forward, more and more RAM will be thrown in the box if for no better reason than ‘because I can.' The OS and apps will catch up.

When I had a Gateway Pentium 133, known as Racing Cow within Chaos Manor, and was looking to increase its 16 MB of RAM (how quaint) the sweet spot for Win95 was known to be 32 MB. Beyond that got into diminishing returns and wasn't necessarily a good investment. But then I recalled my first machine, an Atari 800, had 48 KB and 48 MB in the Gateway became a moral imperative.

The obvious conclusion is that if you're going for a "good enough" system, 4 GB will do, but if you do a lot of graphics work you'll want more memory. And of course if you run virtual machines, you'll need all the memory you can get. I‘ll test this at 4 GB, but I'll be happier with 12 - or more.

Incidentally, Eric maintains the computer household for my partner Larry Niven and his socially on-line active wife Marilyn. Larry's primary system is reaching retirement age, so Eric is upgrading Niven to a new Sandy Bridge system. It's possible Niven will have one before I do.

Microsoft Windows Phone 7

There was considerable buzz over the new Microsoft Windows 7 Phones at CES, and a number of diehard Windows enthusiasts were carrying them. I played with one for a while, and frankly I prefer it to my elderly iPhone 3G, but that's hardly astonishing. I was long ago supposed to upgrade my iPhone 3 to an iPhone 4, which has the best camera in any phone on the market (including the Windows Phone 7), but I haven't got around to it; and of course it's likely that the iPhone 5 will come out shortly. Then Apple announced that the iPhone will be available for Verizon as well as AT&T, but that's not as encouraging as most of us hoped. See this ZDnet review.

I have to replace my aging iPhone 3, but with what? It isn't easy choosing a new smart phone. The fact is that like most of the other modern technology, the Windows 7 Phone is plenty Good Enough as a smart phone. It has features that will thrill some and infuriate others, but the same can be said for just about every smart phone out there. For the moment I continue to make do with what I have; and I really like the iPhone 4's camera.

Window Phone 7 has reportedly infuriated a number of developers in the Windows Mobile enterprise community, but others seem pleased with the new interface and capabilities. Those interested in learning about Windows Phone 7 application development will be interested in these books. Note that free electronic copies of both books are available on line.

Programming Windows Phone 7: Microsoft Silverlight Edition and Programming Windows Phone 7: Microsoft XNA Framework Edition, both by Charles Petzold, Microsoft Press, are pretty essential for anyone expecting to write applications for the new Microsoft Windows 7 phones. They are well written and well edited, and will serve as introductions as well as handbooks. Do understand that they are not introductions to programming: you need to know something about programming principles. You will also need to know either C# or Microsoft Visual Basic.NET.

Note that both books are available free from Microsoft Press in electronic form. These print copies are fully indexed, though, and reasonably priced for their content; one assumes that you're serious about learning about Windows Phone 7 programming if you buy the paper copies. I can't think of any reason to buy the paper copies if you don't have a real intention to write Windows 7 apps, which means you will need to have installed Microsoft Visual Studio 10, and have at least a rudimentary familiarity with that.

The Windows Phone 7 environment is considerably different from the older Windows Mobile enterprise environment. Petzold describes the change as a reboot, and from all I can see that's pretty accurate. Familiarity with Windows Mobile will not be sufficient to get you going on Windows 7 Apps.

As to why Silverlight or XNA, Petzoid says "Generally you'll choose Silverlight for writing programs you might classify as applications or utilities. These programs are built from a combination of markup and code." ... "XNA is primarily for writing high performance games. For 2D programs you define sprites and backgrounds based around bitmaps, for 3D games you define models in 3D space." This doesn't mean you can't write games in Silverlight, or "even write traditional applications using XNA, although doing so might sometimes be challenging." If any of this leaves you undecided, my advice is to learn the Silverlight environment and once you can use that, contemplate adding XNA to your armory. Incidentally, the Silverlight edition is over 700 pages, and gives far more examples than the 400 page XNA edition.

If you are contemplating getting into Windows Phone 7 applications, these are among the first of an impending flood of books. They seem to be a good place to start. Petzold writes well and gives good examples.

Winding Down

The Movie the Month is "The Social Network." I have conflicting reports on just how accurate it is: some insiders tell me it's pretty close to reality, others that it's more fiction than most think. Interestingly, those who attack the film's honesty are effusive in their praise of it as an entertaining movie.

I know a few of the principals in the background of the action of the movie, and my guess is that while the ostensible central premise of the flick - Zuckerberg created Facebook because he couldn't get a date - is false, much of the rest is true enough. Bill Gates set out to create a revolution, and dedicated himself to making his vision of a computer in every house, and in every office, and in every classroom come to pass. Zuckerberg seems to have acted with considerably less dedication and vision. Calling Microsoft an accidental empire was silly; less so when looking at Facebook.

All that is irrelevant. The Social Network is brilliantly acted and directed, and completely absorbing. I was absorbed from the opening scene, and I didn't realize how long the movie was until it was over when I was astonished at the time. See it.

The book of the month is A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark (Paperback) or in a Kindle edition. It's quite readable on the Kindle (or on the iPad running the Kindle app) but there are lots of notes, charts, and tables, and some might prefer paper.

This is a complicated book. It points out that from the time of the discovery of agriculture to the Industrial Revolution, most of humanity lived at the edge of poverty. There was always a wealthy class, and most of we what we know about history is the story of that class, but even as Jane Austen's proper young ladies were concerned with balls and elaborate dinners, over ninety percent of the English people had one meal a day, one set of clothing to wear, and lived short and rather nasty lives - and England of that day was wealthy compared to most of the world. Go back in history to Roman times and conditions weren't much different. When technological advances - such as the invention of the horse collar - increased productivity, the result was a rise in population, until most of the populace once again lived at the edge of poverty.

The Industrial Revolution might have happened in Babylonia, ancient Egypt, Athenian Greece, at many times during Roman history both Republic and Empire and East and West; during the Medieval Warm period and the times of Charlemagne; or in China or Japan at many times. Yet it did not: it was well into the 19th Century that technological progress brought about a general increase in consumption for the general population. If you doubt this proposition, read the book before making up your mind. The question becomes, then, why didn't it happen earlier or elsewhere: what was there about England in the 19th Century that allowed this astounding and world wide change? This question is addressed in detail, and it is fascinating reading. Highly recommended.

I have been rambling long enough, and I'm out of time. I realize I haven't done the User's Choice Awards and the Orchids and Onions Parade. I'll do those next. My conclusion from CES applies: most of this stuff is Good Enough now. I understand that's not good enough for my readers, and I'll continue to offer my informed opinions about specifics as well as my speculations about technology; but there's no urgency about picking and choosing among good stuff from the year 2010. Everything is getting better, sometimes dramatically so. Ain't Moore's Law wonderful?

Indeed, I suspect the Onions are more important than the Orchids. You'll see next month.